"Dessalines" (1893): A Play by William Edgar Easton

About this Digital Edition

William Edgar Easton (1861-1930) was an African-American writer and activist, and the author of two largely overlooked plays about the Haitian Revolution, Dessalines (1893) and Christophe (1911).  Born and raised in Massachusetts. Easton's mother, Marie Antoinette Leggett-Easton, was said to have been descended from a participant in the Haitian Revolution. William Edgar Easton lived for a number of years in Texas before moving to California. 

Dessalines tells the story of a major historical figure in the Haitian revolution with a somewhat fanciful angle, apparently under the influence of Shakespearean history plays. Easton's Dessalines is generally more sympathetic than the historical Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a general who fought at Toussaint L'Ouverture's side and became the first Emperor of Independent Haiti before being assassinated in 1806. Whereas the historical Dessalines is perhaps best known outside of Haiti for his massacre of white French colonists in 1804, in Easton's play the character Dessalines falls in love with a 'Colored' woman named Clarisse. Ultimately, he pulls back from acts of violent retribution and follows Clarisse in converting to Christianity. 

In his Preface, Easton suggests he wrote largely with the aim of creating an opportunity for serious drama for and within the Black Community, at a time when Blackface caricatures of Black life were the norm: 

It is true we have our sketch artists, whose business it has been to supply our burnt-cork “artists” with ideas. Indeed, we have had excellent caricaturists of the Negro, in his only recognized school of legitimate drama, i. e., buffoonery.

But the author of this work hopes to see a happier era inaugurated by the constant production of legitimate drama, written exclusively for Negro players and meeting, he hopes, with the full endorsement of the brother in white. Othello, once the pride of the ambitious colored histrionic, has sadly metamorphosed his once singularly dark complexion and now holds the boards, the victim of a very mild case of sunburn.

Notably, Easton's play largely figures conflict between 'Black' Haitians and mixed-race Haitians identified in the play as 'Colored'. The former are committed to the Revolution, while the latter are supporting French rule. 

Dessalines, published by a local publishing house in Galveston, Texas, appears to have only had a brief window of performance after the text of the play was published in 1893, and essentially disappeared without a trace subsequently. 

Very little has been written about the play, excepting a 1975 article in CLA Journal by Robert J. Fehrenbach. That article has a helpful plot summary and analysis, and can be found here

This edition was prepared from a Page Image PDF accessed from HathiTrust. Text processing and formatting was done by Kelly Allen, Emily Rupp, Isaiah Rivera, Hannah Provost, Molly Porter, Amira Shokr, and Amardeep Singh in October 2020. This Editorial note was prepared by Amardeep Singh. 

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